Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
2 Aug

Smart Spice: Cumin

What do you know about cumin? Cumin seeds are pungent, potent little things with the ability to significantly change the trajectory of a dish. They are featured prominently in Mexican, Mediterranean, Indian, Middle Eastern, and certain Chinese cuisines. Back in the Middle Ages, cumin was one of the most popular – and most accessible – condiments for the spice-crazy Europeans, and stories tell of soldiers going off to war with loaves of cumin bread in their satchels for good luck. Cumin originated in the Mediterranean, and it was used extensively by the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Persians, and just about everyone in that region. It is not to be confused with caraway, which is actually called “cumin” in multiple European languages. They are somewhat similar in taste and appearance, but cumin is spicier and, in my opinion, tastier.

As is usually the case with spices that have been in use for thousands of years, cumin appears to provide a number of potential health benefits, from anti-glycation agent to antioxidant to anti-osteoporotic, and much more. Note that many of the surnames in the following PubMed links are of Indian origin. Cumin, along with ghee and a host of other spices, played a prominent role in the Ayurvedic medicinal traditions, and I love seeing a lot of these supposedly “old wives’ tales” get preliminary scientific justification:

  • The jury is still out on whether dietary AGEs are worrisome, but it’s clear that the formation of endogenous AGEs is a much bigger concern, especially for diabetics. In diabetic rats, cumin extract was more effective at reducing blood glucose and AGE production than glibenclamide, an anti-diabetic drug.
  • Cumin’s anti-glycation properties proved useful in another study, in which diabetic rats were able to stave off cataracts after oral dosing with cumin powder.
  • Another study found that cumin extract reduced total cholesterol, triglycerides, and pancreatic inflammatory markers in diabetic rats. It also prevented excessive weight loss. Again, it beat out glibenclamide.
  • Oral doses (25, 50, 100, 200 mg/kg) of cumin on consecutive days improved the immune response of mice with compromised immune systems due to restraint-induced stress. These effects were marked by a reduction in elevated cortisol and adrenal gland size, an increase in the weight of the thymus and spleen, and replenishment of depleted T cells. There was a dose dependent response, but all doses had beneficial effects.
  • An extract of cumin had anti-osteoporotic effects on rats, similar to estradiol, but without the associated weight gain. Cumin-dosed (orally, 1 mg/kg) osteoporotic rats had increased bone density and improved bone microarchitecture.
  • Cumin protected the livers of rats from ethanol- and rancid sunflower oil-induced toxicity.
  • One study even seems to suggest a role for cumin in weaning addicts off of opiates – here – by reducing tolerance (yeah, it could increase the subjective high, but it would mean less product was required) and dependence.
  • Antioxidant content of commonly available commercial cumin in Pakistan was found to be “potent.” It’s unclear whether the same holds true for cumin in other countries, but I imagine it probably is. Go with whole seeds and grind as needed, if possible, as ground cumin (and anything, really) will be more exposed to the air and thus more liable to degrade. If you’ve got ground cumin, store it in the fridge in an airtight, sealed container. It also helps to heat the seeds before grinding to really release the flavor. I usually toast them on a cast iron skillet over low heat for a couple minutes (just wait for the smell and don’t let them burn; you’ll know it when you smell it, because it’s somewhat reminiscent of a fine body odor), but one study found that microwaving whole cumin seeds actually preserved the aromatic and antioxidant compounds better than traditional oven roasting. Go figure.

So, what can you do with the stuff besides make curries?

Curries are great and expected places to insert cumin, of course, but why not branch out and explore? Cumin used to act as a replacement for expensive black pepper for people who couldn’t afford it, so why not treat it like that yourself and add it to things you’d otherwise never think to? Cumin and scrambled eggs. Cumin and sweet potatoes. Cumin and homemade stock for a nice hot drink before bed. If you’d eat it with black pepper, try it with cumin – not for any health benefits, necessarily, but just for a nice change of pace. My latest favorite is beef (any cut will do) marinated in lime juice, wheat-free tamari, and cumin. I just did a batch of bone-in short ribs like that with homemade beef broth, as a slight alteration of Richard Nikoley’s excellent short rib recipe, and it was incredible. I highly recommend it.

How do you use cumin? Have you used it? And don’t say “in curries”; I want some new stuff to try!

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. Never even knew what cumin was all about till now. I guess I have something new to experiment with tonight after I stop by the grocery store and pick up some cumin. I love to experiment with new spices and see what new flavors I can discover.

    Chris Tamme wrote on August 2nd, 2011
    • You’ve never had cumin???? oh my. Me on a desert island, it would be cumin and salt for sure. I have to say though, that is smells a bit like sweat and it’s one of those spices/herbs (like cilantro) that people either love or hate.
      Happy sampling!

      Milemom wrote on August 2nd, 2011
    • If any of you have an older dog, cumin is a perfect add to there food. Not only does it keep their tummy in tip top shape, it gives an old dog bunches of energy.

      Kathryn wrote on August 28th, 2011
      • I grew up in a Hispanic household, my mother was an excellent cook and baker. Although are diet was varied, I noted my mother did occasionally cook with the use of cumin. So I recently tried in a recipe for chile and found it to add a nice punch to the flavor, but last night I added it again to another dish and at about 1pm noticed I could not fall asleep. I felt as if I had all this energy, and I can only attribute that to the use of cumin. I think I’ll use it sparingly going forward.

        Jerry wrote on April 25th, 2013
      • My cat likes to eat cumin the spice and olives. I have searched the web and found no other cat who does the same. You can see him here

        Nigel wrote on May 26th, 2014
    • Try this, pour a little sour cream over some fresh strawberries. Top with a sprinkle or two of ground cumin. Sounds strange. Tastes wonderful.

      Roger Mercer wrote on March 8th, 2013
    • I am diabetic (type 2) and I love to put cumin, cinnamon and tumeric with a little sea salt on my freshly made popcorn which I popped in a little coconut oil. Not only is it a tasty combo on popcorn, but my “numbers” stay healthy. I do not take any medication, just control the diabetes with diet and exercise.

      Lorey wrote on January 23rd, 2014
  2. Try liver, sauteed with a generous pinch of Cumin in Ghee.

    Another of my favorite ways to have cumin is, lightly roast the seeds, grind to a fine powder and have it mixed with some salt with a bowl of greek yogurt. For some extra effect add half a shredded cucumber to the mix.

    Resurgent wrote on August 2nd, 2011
    • So your telling me that in order to low liver I just need to cook it in ghee or butter and add a lot of cumin? If so, I’ll give it a go… I have a lot ofcliver to eat up!

      Primal toad wrote on August 2nd, 2011
      • Yeah, i bought a pack of brains awhile back and they have disappeared to the depths of my deep freezer… Liver is a bit the same. Good intentions…!

        alley cat wrote on August 3rd, 2011
      • Google Foie de Veau sautee. It’s a recipe for liver. I make it paleo friendly by pan frying in butter and coconut oil and use almond flour to “bread” the slices. It’s awesome.

        Dave wrote on August 3rd, 2011
  3. I love the smell when I grind some in my mortar…

    peggy wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  4. Oh, how I adore cumin. Especially with coriander.

    You can make some delicious mexican spiced nuts and seeds with cumin, coriander, cayenne, cinnamon, salt and pepper as your spice blend. Toss the nuts and seeds in egg white so the spices will stick, and toast till golden. My fave blend is sliced almonds, pepitas and sunflower seeds.

    Anne wrote on August 2nd, 2011
    • I do the same thing with my almonds: tamari, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and cayenne, then roast them for a few minutes.

      I use the same spice combination with sauteed mushrooms and onions, and use it as a topping for just about any type of meat. Usually with grilled steaks, but it goes with just about anything.

      Brian wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  5. I used cumin to make a glaze for lamb ribs the other day. You parboil the lamb ribs for 45 minutes, then grill them. Baste with a mixture of marmalade, Dijon mustard and cumin.

    shannon wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  6. Cumin is excellent in a lot of cuisines. I like to use it for it’s depth of flavor in my chili, also as a basis for a rub on steak. I have had luck with rubbing a pork loin with fresh coriander and cumin seeds. You also can’t go wrong if you are using it with dried mushrooms to give a very dark undertone to a stewed dish.
    Heck, even roasted cauliflower is awesome with cumin as well!

    Jason Sandeman wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  7. I mixed cumin and crushed garlic and made a wet rub for my steak before grilling it. It imparts a very nice smokey flavor.

    Margot wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  8. Hi Mark,
    Nice to see a post on cumin.
    Cumin is used everyday in my Indian kitchen. Here are some options apart from using them in curry.

    1) Steep a teaspoon of cumin in a liter of hot water. Strain and enjoy flavored cumin water. Aids in digestion.
    2) Roast cumin in ghee and powder it and add it to buttermilk and soups.
    3) Temper cumin in ghee and then add vegetables/ meat. Stir fry and add to the flavor with pepper and salt.

    Shilpa wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  9. You know what sounds good? Cumin coconut bread. I may have to go get some coconut flour and try a batch this week…

    Uncephalized wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  10. I love lots of cumin in (legume-free) chili.

    Jane wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  11. Cumin is the spice heavily used in middle eastern countries.
    It’s used a LOT in dishes in the country of Turkey. My sister lived in Sri Lanka for awhile, it’s used heavily there, too.

    I’m not a fan of cumin even though I’m 50% balkan…it’s a nasty tasting spice, yuck.

    Kaiser Wilhelm wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  12. Awesome! I just posted a recipe yesterday with cumin.

    Tara wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  13. Cumin is a big spice here in the Czech Republic, bread, soups. While I could take it or leave it, it’s a pretty polarizing spice, I know a lot of people who despice (sorry) it.

    Sean wrote on August 2nd, 2011
    • Actually the stuff that’s in almost everything in the Czech republic is caraway, not cumin. There’s an amusing passage in Albert Camus’ diaries complaining about the practice and if my own experience is anything to go by, things had not improved one bit by the early 1990s.

      The entire country seemed to smell of it, and, unlike what Mark would have you believe, it’s nothing like the sharp smell of cumin at all.

      mtts wrote on August 2nd, 2011
      • Yes
        beware – the same goes for the scandinavian cuisine bread, cheese and cabbage -it is NOT cummin but caraway we use,
        BUT the problem is that it is called KOMMEN -so it is easy to mistake 😉 when translated

        Henriette wrote on August 3rd, 2011
  14. Best. Spice. Ever.

    annie wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  15. rub cumin and chili powder on flank steak and grill. yummy. carne asada-ish.

    Travass wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  16. I have never even heard of this spice until now. Sounds like I have been missing out.

    I better go out to store now to get some :)

    Mark wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  17. Cumin is amazingly a key ingredient in alot of really, really different ethnic cuisines. Some of you have mentioned Czech, Turkish, Indian, Mexican….cumin is found in all of them. We keep it both ground and whole (in seed form) in our kitchen.

    Abby C. wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  18. Cumin roasted cauliflower–you’ll never steam or rice or mash it again! Toss flowerettes with some olive oil, generous amount of cumin, some smoked paprika, and salt & pepper if you like. Roast in a shallow pan 30-45 minutes in a pretty hot oven (400-ish). Mmmmmm, even my “cauliflower-hating” husband has seconds on this!

    evadnefrances wrote on August 2nd, 2011
    • My current favourite steak/roast cauliflower/chicken/brussel sprout spice mix is rosemary, smoked paprika, cumin seeds and sea salt.
      It’s gorgeous in just about everything I’ve tried it on.

      Jemima wrote on August 2nd, 2011
    • Oooo..cumin roasted beets! Much the same recipe. Seemed way weird to me, but I had beets in the fridge and decided to try it. Oh boy was it good!

      Nannsi wrote on August 4th, 2011
  19. Cumin is great for mixing up with olive oil and drizzling over whatever plain protein you have. It’s a no-effot way to add some great flavor. Works especially well with ground turkey.

    Susan Alexander wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  20. Having grown up in Southern California, I have had Tex-Mex all my life. (Or technically “Cal-Mex” I guess.) I love cumin. If it helps with my diabetes, so much the better.

    Mexican food snobs would say that cumin is not used much in “real” Mexican cooking. Actually, it was brought to what is now the U.S. in 1731 by settlers from the Canary Islands. So I guess it is one of the earliest American foods, aside from American Indian ones. See more (than you want to know) in my blog under Tex-Mex.

    Harry wrote on August 2nd, 2011
    • tex-mex in Colorado is how I was introduced to cumin. I love it. I make a meatloaf with that and chili powder. Yum :-)

      bbuddha wrote on August 2nd, 2011
    • Quinoa Enchiladas w/ cumin.

      Cook Quinoa in enchilada sauce (Tomato paste added to water with salt cumin and chili powder to taste, hot sauce optional).

      Make extra enchilada sauce, or use store bought (red or green.

      Put extra enchilada sauce in bottom of baking pan (extra cumin is good).

      Take round corn or flour tortillas and put cooked quinoa and a little shredded cheese inside. Roll tortilla up and place in dish on enchilada sauce with the open side down, do this until the baking pan is full with each enchilada touching each other.

      Pour more extra enchilada sauce to cover all the tortillas. (make sure you at least wet the corners with enchilada sauce to the ends don’t burn in the oven)

      Sprinkle shredded cheese for looks over top and add more cumin if you like (I like).

      Bake uncovered until top of cheese is melted. Serve hot with a spatula.

      Variations include adding beef/re-friend beans/spinach/onions/more cheese etc. to the quinoa before wrapping the enchiladas.

      Your friends won’t believe they are eating quinoa.

      Shortib wrote on August 3rd, 2011
  21. I love to use cumin to make sauces and dips. My favorite is a yogurt-based dip to replace sour cream in tacos.

    -lime juice
    -chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
    -salt and pepper

    blend together in a food processor and drizzle over tacos/taco salad. Especially great with fish tacos.

    Ashley H wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  22. I take food processed vegetables (spinach, kale, carrots, etc), meat of choice (usually chicken, beef, or tuna) and mix them together in a bowl. Next I add fresh salsa and cumin to season, and then heat it all up. A really fast meal!

    the4and5 wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  23. Try putting cauliflower florets on a dry baking tray, sprinkling with cumin and roasting. You can add a few drops of water but if I’ve just washed my cauliflower I tend not to bother as there is enough residual moisture. They take around 20 Mins and you end up with an intense taste of cauliflower which isn’t diluted by cooking in water. It also locks in all the nutrients which might otherwise be lost in the cooking liquor. Sounds weird, tastes yummy

    deaksie wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  24. I used to use it in potato salad(when I still ate it)
    Now use it in celeriac,beetroot,carrot or any potato salad subs,but why do people always overdose it in chili!

    dave wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  25. Alright!! Bring on the chili! I love putting cumin on my eggs with some cheese and sour cream or fresh salsa!!

    Joanne - The Real Food Mama wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  26. Cumin is my favorite spice, hands down. I love the muskiness of it. I use it in meatloaf, along with sumac and cinnamon and just a hint of garlic. Instead of tomato paste I use pureed roast red peppers, leaving about half in larger chunks. Saute onions, add egg and usually a mix of ground beef and lamb. I made goat burgers last night with the same spice mixture.

    Sandy wrote on August 2nd, 2011
    • I always thought Sumac was poisonous! Guess I’ll need to look that up.

      Merridy wrote on February 17th, 2012
  27. Cumin cumin everywhere…yummy. I like the instead of pepper idea on eggs, it’s on the breakfast menu for tomorrow. Thanks!

    Dasbutch wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  28. Here where I live – let`s call this place central europe/mediterranean/balkans – we use cumin for – TEA.

    It tastes great, just put in in an almost boiling water and cover for 15 minutes. Together with ANISE it is well known tea for its great taste and as a traditional remedy (especially digestion troubles).

    Boštjan Cimer wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  29. I make pan-seared (in butter) butterflied chicken breasts dry-rubbed with cumin, salt and black pepper, and they’re -awesome-. Amazing how such a simple addition of seasoning can totally change the character of a dish!

    Nick wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  30. Cumin and turmeric in soups and stews is really, really good, it adds a whole new layer of flavoring.

    spincycle wrote on August 2nd, 2011
    This is interesting,not sure if you’ve covered it already.

    dave wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  32. Cumin is a constant in portuguese and brazilian cuisine…My grandmother made a fabulous spice rub for pork chops and center cuts with cumin, white pepper and garlic…and brined it with red wine vinegar…While “un-primal”…her portuguese beans..feijoada?.. also were wonderfully fragrant with lots of cumin….

    Donna wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  33. Cumin is the key ingredient in one of our very favourite recipes; Pulled Pork (a.k.a Shredded Pork).

    We have our own recipe which is basically a mixture of the Pulled Pork recipe from the Primal Blueprint Cookbook with a heavy influence from this one:

    David Wood wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  34. Cumin is the key spice in my families traditional Turkish kofte recipe. Ground lamb, an egg, fresh coriander, finely grated onion and fresh garlic mixed with sea salt, pepper corns and cumin seeds ground with a mortar and pestle.
    I’ve never tried frying the seeds before but will give that a try the next time I make a batch. Thanks for the tip!

    Alan wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  35. I can’t believe nobody has mentioned using cumin in guacamole! Salt, garlic, cumin, fresh-squeezed lemon juice and your avocado is divine!

    Hadass wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  36. Cumin KUHM-in, not KYOO-min or KOO-min. Cumin (which formerly was also spelled cummin) should rhyme with summon,

    Dirk wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  37. i put Cumin on everything! …almost. Love cumin seeds sprinkled on my salad Yum

    Kirsty wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  38. In the Netherlands it’s used to flavor cheese. That is to say you can buy cheese with cumin seeds in it. If that is unavailable to you, possibly you can replicate the effect by sprinkling cumin seedson a piece of aged “Gouda”

    mtts wrote on August 2nd, 2011
    • No it is NOT cumin but caraway !

      Caraway =Carum carvi)
      cumin =Cuminum cyminum)
      taste totally diffrent 😉

      Henriette wrote on August 3rd, 2011
      • No definitely cumin in the cheese it is called komijnekaas. We find it quite easily in South Africa and my husband is half Dutch so it is one of the things he loves to get – along with things like zoutedrop (salty licorice). Karwij is caraway in Dutch.

        Stephni wrote on August 3rd, 2011
  39. Fascinating! If cumin improves sensitivity to opium, perhaps it raises sensitivity to the body’s own opioids, which among other things could be a useful tool in combatting binge-eating behavior. I wonder if I start using cumin, will I be less tempted to eat the entire jar of macadamias in one sitting? An n=1 experiment awaits…

    Thanks Mark for another tool in the spice rack!

    Timothy wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  40. You can pour hot water on 2 spoon cumin seeds and make tea. it has high iron content and other minerals. its very useful in IBD/IBS. In kerala, where Ayurveda originated, they drink cumin water with all meals and its served in all restaurants. roasted and crushed cumin seeds have nice intense flavor..use 2 make buttermilk which is damn gud for digestion and IBD/IBS.

    Amit wrote on August 2nd, 2011

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